When founder and benefactor Paul Allen, executive director Jody Allen Patton (Paul's sister) and a team of designers, curators, educators and techies open the $250 million Experience Music Project to the public in Seattle on June 23, it will undoubtedly be the most electronically glossy, groovily interactive museum-and-then-some on the face of the planet. But the institution started out in 1992 with a far more modest vision: to be just a little storefront museum about Allen's idol, the Seattle-born rock genius Jimi Hendrix. Patton recalls, "Sotheby's had an auction of rock memorabilia, and we bid on personal effects of Jimi's--some jewelry and a hat. We won, and the boxes were shipped to us. When we opened the tissue paper and the hat came out, well you could just feel the power in that artifact."
Then Allen and Patton began to realize they wanted to tell a much bigger story--the whole story: how rock and roll started when 1950s white teenagers went nuts over derivatives of black blues music, how rock hit a peak in the late '60s with Hendrix and Janis Joplin and how it morphed into the cultures of punk and hip-hop. They hired as curators a squad of '70s types who'd been graduate students at the University of Washington, FM disc jockeys and rock musicians--passionate, articulate walking databases. They seemed to know everything, from what guitars were like back in 1770 to how Jamaican banquet toasts evolved into today's rap. As the collection of instruments and rock memorabilia they began to amass grew toward the current 85,000 items, the project's space requirement more than tripled. Allen renamed his baby EMP and in 1996 commissioned Frank Gehry--well-known in architectural circles, but a couple of years away from worldwide fame as designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain--to create its building.
Gehry--who admits he prefers Haydn to Hendrix--bought a bunch of electric guitars in Seattle, took them back to L.A., chopped them up and reassembled the pieces into architectural shapes. That didn't quite work, although the building--a lot rounder--stayed largely Stratocaster-colored. From a distance--say, a high hotel room about a mile away--the 140,000-square-foot EMP looks like a peculiar dessert: purple, red, silver, gold and baby-blue Jell-O with a garnish of green trees. Up close, it's a trademark Gehry design, a mix of metals cladding "swoopy" shells covering a careful floor plan. In other words, it's more organized than it looks. Inside, the place is almost as curvy as the outside.
After you enter (adult admission: $19.95), the first thing you'll encounter is the very un-museumlike 85-foot-high "Sky Church." That was Hendrix's term for a dream space in which all kinds of people could gather freely and casually to hear music. From there, you can get museum-serious in the relatively sedate collection galleries (wood tones, black backdrops in the vitrines). The Hendrix Gallery boasts that crucial hat and Jimi's "Electric Ladyland" lyrics notebook. (A touch-screen fascimile lets you scroll down and convert the manuscripted words to print--in both as-written and as-recorded versions.) Sliding into The Guitar Gallery, you'll find an 18th-century Italian gem and such electrified descendants as a 1935 Seattle-made Audiovox. Naturally, there's a hometown homage, "Northwest Passage," with the predictable Kurt Cobain artifact (song lyrics). "Where's the British invasion?" you ask. EMP restricts itself to American music. The consolation, says head curator Chris Bruce, is that the rule "keeps us from going off into the Beatles all the time." EMP's biggest draws will most likely be "Sound Lab" and "On Stage," upstairs. Step into the lab and you'll get computer-assisted tutorials on guitar, drums and keyboard at whatever level--doofus to master--feels comfortable. Once you've polished your reverbs and jamming in the lab's "Sound Pods," you can proceed to the pitch-black "On Stage" cubby. Here, EMP promos say, you can "be a rock star--even if you have never played an instrument." That is, you can pose as a rock star--enveloped in mist-machine "smoke," speckled with colored spotlights, facing an adoring video-projected audience. Afterward you can purchase a poster of your "performance." Finally, "Artist's Journey," which is being fine-tuned in secret right up to opening day, promises to be a kind of musical amusement-park ride, concluding in front of an IMAX-scale screen where a "state-of-the-art motion platform" delivers a "one-of-a-kind multimedia experience." We'll bet that means watching a loud concert movie while being mechanically jostled. The nonprofit EMP says its main purpose is actually more education than entertainment. As head of outreach Alycia Allen (no relation to Paul) puts it, the institution is mainly out "to spark in young people interests that they are not necessarily aware of" and to prompt them to be creative in anything they do. The general idea seems to be that kids will be attracted by rock, seduced into learning, say, the physics involved in electric guitars, and get stoked to go off and become civil engineers. Or something.
But rock and roll, which used to signify teenage rebellion against such conformities as school, is more at home in boozy clubs and throbbing arenas. Something vanilla can happen when it's plunked down in a park as educational fun for the entire family. EMP guitar curator Peter Blecha resists the idea that the museum is sanitizing rock: "No kid is going to stop making screaming feedback in his garage on account of what we're doing." Let's hope so. Nobody wants real rock--sweaty, fleshy, in-your-face rock--to end up the kind of fossil you can find only in a museum.